By: Nick Castillo, Sara Eunice Martinez, Kaylee Nemec
Lance Wilson has been around honey bees his entire life.
Wilson, a master beekeeper who manages hives in Llano and Travis County, was introduced to beekeeping by his grandfather when he was a child.
“So many people you’ll notice have grandparents that are involved with beekeeping and are exposed to it that way,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how you would accrue the number of years that I was exposed to it with my grandfather, but I’ve been doing it myself as an adult for about seven or eight years.”
Wilson, president of the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and area director of the Texas Beekeepers Association, said he’s noticed a decrease in his colonies’ population size – a trend that matches national statistics which show a huge decline in honey-producing bee colonies.
“There’s been a precipitant decline in the number of managed colonies,” Wilson said. “There’s all sorts of reasons for this.” He added that harmful parasites, such as mites, loss of habitat and pesticides were among the top reasons for decline in bee population.
According to the National Agriculture Statistics Services, there are 2.44 million honey-producing bee colonies in the United States, a sharp decline from the 5.9 million colonies in 1947.
While honey bees might strike fear in some or be seen as a nuisance during a day at the park, they play an important role in agriculture. Honey bees pollinate flowers and without them, many crops wouldn’t be produced. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.
Research has been conducted because of honey bees high-value in agriculture and society. Waldan Kwong, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, said research has been done to find the reasons behind the decline and how to reduce the loss of bee population.
“At this stage, many scientists are trying to understand the causes and scale of the problem – very basic research – such that in the future, better policies can be implemented at the regulatory level,” Kwong said in an email. “For my own research, I am looking at the bacteria that live in association with [honey and bumble] bees.”
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are aiding in bee research. Integrative biology professor Nancy Moran leads a bee research lab in the department of biosciences. Moran and her team examine bacteria in bees and how it interacts with the them.
“These bacteria are not pathogenic, but are rather commensals and mutualists that are part of the natural social environment of these insects,” said Kwong, who is also a postdoctoral fellow in Moran’s lab. He added that the bacteria work with the honey bees to help fight off harmful pathogens, and help with the bee’s digestive system.
Moran’s lab has 10 bee colonies on top of the J.T. Patterson Labs Building. These honey bees are used in her lab research. The hope is to see how these bacteria can protect them from negative exposure to pathogens, which would reduce the population decline.
“There’s the hope that [the bacteria in bees] will be helpful with factors that affect the health [of bees],” Moran said. “It’s been shown that bacteria can protect bees.”
While there is a concern about honey bees rapid population decrease, Moran said the concerns should be lessened.
“It’s not like honey bees are going to go extinct,” Moran said. “There are a lot of honey bees.”
Despite his concerns about the bee population, Wilson said there is work being done to halt the decline.
“The good thing is that there are various chemical treatments that are biopesticide or are organic in nature that means we’re finding better ways to treat honey bees and keep mites under control that doesn’t negatively impact the colonies,” Wilson said.
Photos By: Kaylee Nemec
Videos filmed and produced by: Sara Eunice Martinez